The Colorado Avalanche are only two games into the new season, and already there are real concerns about the team’s ability to kill off penalties. After just six periods of hockey, the Avalanche have given up five PPG against, and a shorthanded goal against for good measure. This is nothing new to Colorado fans, as the Avs are 28th in penalty kill percentage since the 2008-2009 season, including finishing 29th last year. After a 4-1 loss to New Jersey last night, a game in which all four goals against were scored in special teams situations, what can we learn about the penalty kill from the data available?
To start, it is important to remember that we are dealing with an incredibly small sample size. The Avalanche will not finish the season with a PK% of 50%; things are going to get better with time. The small sample size also makes analysis of multi-game trends a bit speculative. However, there are a few data sets that show that the issues on the PK for the Avs actually stem from struggles during even strength play.
While a more complete guide to reading shot pressure charts can be found here, the general idea is that a shot pressure chart serves to measure the frequency of Corsi events (i.e., “shots” are defined as all shot attempts, regardless of outcome). The chart is read as a timeline from top to bottom, and broken into three sections for each period. The farther the blue sections of the chart deviate from the center, the more frequently shots are being attempted. The dark blue sections of the chart designate power play situations (regardless of number of skaters), names of goal scorers are listed at the time of their goals, and shots that hit posts are listed as “PING”, which is fantastic.
So, what can we learn from these charts? While Corsi statistics give us a good indication of five-on-five puck possession, shot pressure charts allow us get a better look at momentum and sustained puck possession. The further from the vertical center line the curve strays, the more offensive pressure that team is exerting on the opposition defense. And anybody that has played hockey knows that the more shots you fire in the offensive zone, the greater the likelihood of scoring chances, and the more likely a tired or desperate defender will take a penalty. For a good example of this, check out the uptick in Colorado shot attempts during the second period of the New Jersey game. The sustained pressure led to an Avalanche power play, culminating in Carl Sodeberg netting the Avs’ lone goal of the evening just as the New Jersey penalty expired.
In over half of the penalties called against the Avalanche against the Rangers, and on each of the four penalties committed in Saturday’s game against the Devils, the Avs’ penalty was committed on the heels of an uptick in opposition shot attempts. This means that each of these penalties came in situations where the Avalanche failed to possess the puck, clear the defensive zone, get fresh legs on the ice, and put pressure back on the offensive end.
It’s easy to look at the current penalty kill woes and attribute it to a lack of effort, skill, coaching, or any number of factors during special teams situations, but the Avalanche simply struggle to cope with any sustained attack from opponents during even strength hockey. Compounding this issue, the team is currently 21st in the league in hits and 26th in blocked shots, two simple metrics of defensive zone activity.
One other factor contributing to opponents’ ability to keep their foot on the gas against the Avalanche is the team’s early struggles on the faceoff dots. The Avs are currently winning just 43% of faceoffs to start the year. Only Arizona is worse at 41.2%, but the real damage is being done on defensive zone faceoffs, where Colorado is dead last in the league at 40%. When a team can’t win draws in the attacking zone, scoring opportunities are lost. When a team can’t win draws in the defensive zone, it can quickly turn into the defensive breakdowns and puck chasing, which often leads to, say it with me: penalties. And how about faceoffs during the penalty kill? The Avs have won four draws, and lost 14. That’s twenty-two percent. The biggest offender is Tyson Jost, with a 1-7 faceoff record on the PK.
The Avs still have not allowed an even strength goal against, and it’s easy to make the penalty kill the scapegoat for Saturday’s loss in New Jersey. You can argue about the Avalanche struggling to cover the point, having a rookie center in Tyson Jost logging twice as much shorthanded time as the next center, or not getting bodies in shooting lanes. You can come up with any number of line combinations to try and improve the shorthanded units, but there are underlying problems that go beyond special teams. The Avs need to win faceoffs, create more sustained pressure in the offensive zone, and give the PK units and goaltenders a chance to rest. Until that happens, arguments over penalty kill adjustments are akin to fighting over which brand of chewing gum can best plug the hole in the ship’s hull.